Shinola: The bolt from Detroit

The Shinola store on Carnaby Street in Soho, London.

Founded just six years ago in 2011, Detroit-based Shinola has hit the UK like a lightning bolt; an appropriate metaphor given that the American watch and lifestyle brand uses the flash of lightning as its logo. Beaverbrooks, Ernest Jones and Goldsmiths are already working with the company, and that is just the start of Shinola’s growth plans for the UK, as WatchPro managing editor rob corder discovered in conversation with the company’s global president Jacques Panis.

Shinola is a start up with a serious pedigree, sophisticated manufacturing capabilities and access to finance that is unimaginable to most fledgling brands. The story of Shinola dates back to 2011 Detroit, where its parent company Bedrock Manufacturing is based. Bedrock Manufacturing is a private equity, venture capital and brand development firm, but it brings more than just financial backing to Shinola because Bedrock is the brainchild of Tom Kartsotis, the original founder of multi-billion-dollar watch company Fossil Group.


Bedrock is effectively the holding company of Shinola, and is the second major brand developed by the investment firm after the successful acquisition and turnaround of Filson, an American outdoor fashion and leather goods company that can trace its history back to the 19th century. It also launched Bedrock Watch Company earlier this year with a plan to manufacture watches in partnership with Tom Ford, the legendary fashion designer and movie director.

The name Shinola, folklore has it, was chosen for its no-nonsense connotation to Americans who can remember a shoe polish company of the same name. The shoe polish business has long gone, but Americans of a certain age still use the phrase, ‘you don’t know shit from Shinola’ to describe somebody that doesn’t understand the difference between something good – shoe polish – and something less useful at shining footwear.

In more British language, Shinola stands for quality and reliability. The Shinola watch company is so confident about the quality and reliability that it offers a lifetime guarantee on all its timepieces.

“The Shinola brand was conceived in 2011 with the notion that we would build watches in the United States, more specifically in Detroit. We knew from the get go that we did not just want to be a watch company, we wanted to be a multi-category product brand with a design focus creating extraordinarily high quality goods here in the US,” explains Jacques Panis, president of Shinola.

Jacques Panis, president of Shinola.
Jacques Panis, president of Shinola.

Bedrock and its subsidiaries want to do much more than just create brands, or stick licensed brand names on mass-produced watches, it wants to bring high quality manufacturing back to America. The almost Trumpian mission is to see former manufacturing hotspots, also known as rust belt cities, rise again. “We are hyper-focused on our core mission, which is job creation here in the United States,” Mr Panis asserts. “I’m the person to figure out and work through how to get things made, how to build the brand in the way that our founder [Mr Kartsotis] wants and that every detail is paid attention to and followed through on. That comes from our desire to put something in the market that is the highest possible standard, not just in our products, but in our operation, in our stores, in our customer experience,” he adds.

Shinola knew from the outset that it could not create its own watch atelier alone, and in 2012 started working with Swiss movement maker Ronda, who trained the first technicians in Detroit and helped establish its manufacturing capabilities. “Ronda was our first partner, who came to Detroit to set up the watchmaking operation for us, and helped us with the initial training of the folks here. The original 12 people they worked with has now grown to over 100 people today who are making movements and doing the assembly here in Detroit,” Mr Panis describes.

From day one, Shinola wanted to be much more than a watch company, the plan was always to create a range of products with the same design DNA and all manufactured in Detroit. Now seven years old, the company is already producing around 500,000 watches per year, along with a range of writing journals, leather goods, bicycles and even retro turntables, speakers and headphones for today’s vinyl record enthusiasts.

Shinola makes a range of lifestyle goods including this retro turntable.
Shinola makes a range of lifestyle goods including this retro turntable.

“I would say we had a global ambition from day one. We also had a vision of creating a company with a purpose. We wanted to created products where people could see where they are coming from. We believe that to be very important from a product standpoint today, in general. What is the purpose, what is the meaning, how does this product resonate with me as a consumer? We worked very hard to bring this story to a global consumer,” says Mr Panis.

Shinola recently took part in a London event designed to promote the creative industries that are mushrooming in the East end of London. Clerkenwell Design Week played host to pop-up presentations from myriad businesses ranging offering everything from furniture to fashion. Shinola was one of the biggest exhibitors, and built a striking installation out of thousands of black lightning bolts, which is used as branding across its products. The presentation was important to focus people’s attention on Shinola’s passion for design.

“I would define us as a design brand. We are a brand that is focused on delivering incredible value to the consumer through every good that we produce, and delivering an exceptional experience via the brand to the consumer,” Mr Panis explains.

“Clerkenwell Design Week was a great opportunity to connect with the creative community in London. A lot of what we do is about word of mouth between customers, and also sharing our story with our retail partners and our collaborative partners,” he adds.

The Shinola installation was just around the corner from WatchPro’s office, so we visited to see how the brand is presented. Visually, it makes a great deal of sense when you see a consistent approach to design applied across the product range. What might have seemed incongruous: selling high end bicycles and audio equipment next to stationery, leather goods watches and jewellery, made considerable sense.

In isolation, the watches still seemed to appeal to the London hipsters that visited the design event. That is important because the vast majority of Shinola’s business in the UK is currently via the country’s biggest jewellers: Ernest Jones, Goldsmiths and Beaverbrooks. Here, the watches will have to make their own impact without the supporting cast of designer goods.

The company puts considerable effort into ensuring that the complete brand story is apparent in its watches, and can be sold by its retail partners. “You put watches into a jeweller and people will assume Shinola is a watch company. But, with our training programmes and our communication to our retail partners, we hope that they are communicating the overarching story. That is our goal, whether they first come into contact with Shinola when they see our bikes, our journals, our jewellery or our watches,” Mr Panis suggests.

Shinola also operates its own standalone stores. It currently has 26 in the United States and one in London’s fashionable Soho district. These stores are designed to present the brand in all its glory and with all of its products. This, Mr Panis says, increases brand awareness in the surrounding area, which increases sales for Shinola’s wholesale partners. “We need to open stores because they help to create brand awareness. When we open a store in a market, we see the direct web business increase. Here in the United States, where we have stores, they help our wholesale accounts because they improve brand awareness in the area,” he adds.

Deepening and strengthening relationships with retail partners in the UK, and finding new ones, is uppermost in Shinola’s plans for expanding this side of the pond. “We have done partnerships with everybody from Mr Porter to Colette in Paris. Today, we have quite a substantial presence in various specialist watch and jewellery groups such as Ernest Jones, Beaverbrooks and Goldsmiths. We will continue to expand these partnerships and continue to work with the incredible wholesale accounts we have there. Those folks they have the ability to share the story in a wide-reaching way, and it is important to foster and support those relationships. We want to continue building on what we have established as the roots of the business in the UK,” Mr Panis insists.

The future is likely to see department store shop in shop point of sales, standalone stores in several major cities across the UK, and a growing ecommerce business for Shinola. But the wholesale accounts will not be overshadowed, Mr Panis promises. “Our focus at the moment is on building brand awareness, building on that group of loyal fans in the UK and supporting our incredible partners in Ernest Jones, Goldsmiths, Beaverbrooks and others,” he continues.

“As we see that momentum building through those channels, we will begin to explore what expansion of our free-standing stores looks like in the UK. We are building momentum together and supporting each other. It is about creating long-lasting partnerships where we work together on future growth plans. The relationships that we have with these leading wholesale partners are extremely valuable to us, and we are grateful to them for their willingness to take on our new brand and to be involved in the day-to-day understanding of our business. It is incredibly important to us that we create success with the current model, which is mainly a wholesale model in the UK. As we look to expand, we will see whether we do shop in shops in some or our retailers, whether we do smaller concessions or larger concessions. How that looks we don’t yet know, but we are looking at every opportunity and option to grow,” Mr Panis states.


The Bedrock

Shinola Bedrock

The Bedrock is Shinola’s first dress watch. Only the most essential details were incorporated, then refined. Slim construction drove the minimalist design, allowing the timepiece to slide effortlessly underneath your finely tailored sleeve. The clean Midnight Blue dial is set with applied index markers and punctuated with a sub-second. The solid stainless steel case on a smooth Cordovan leather strap in Oxblood completes the look, making for one rich, obsessively engineered timepiece.

Canfield Bolt

Shinola Bolt

The lightning bolt is a symbol of quality and excellence for the Shinola brand. The new Canfield Bolt was designed to highlight this continued commitment to quality by featuring an applied metal bolt symbol on a minimal, sandblast sunray dial. We’re letting the Canfield Bolt speak for itself. Built using the Canfield’s top-load construction, the open dial features three hands driven by an Argonite 713 quartz movement. The Canfield Bolt tells the story of our evolution as a watch manufacturer committed to quality in craftsmanship, precision and design.

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